Thanks to a special screening by the Milwaukee Film Festival, I had the opportunity this week to see Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, the new documentary about Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind the beloved red furry creature on Sesame Street. I had been waiting for an opportunity to see this movie for a while, and I had two conflicting preconceptions prior to seeing it. First, I am a huge fan of Sesame Street, having grown up on it, in addition to being a fan of the Muppets and just about any other Jim Henson project. On the other side, Elmo has always been by far my least favorite Jim Henson character. My argument for this is twofold: I rank “babytalk,” whether spoken by an adult, child, or Muppet, among the most abhorrent sounds to ever enter into my ears. On a related note, I find it inexcusable that a central character on a television program designed to teach children to speak would consistently use improper grammar. That said, my love for Sesame Street as a whole prevailed, and it was with great excitement that I entered into this movie.
The film follows the life of Kevin Clash, from his childhood making his own puppets out of the fur lining of his father’s overcoat to his current celebrity as one of the central members of the Sesame Street operation (director, producer, and executive producer, in addition to puppeteer). His story is inspiring, but moreover his personality is heartwarming. We see Clash’s true self shine through Elmo, as a relatively shy and sensitive man is able to honestly express himself through the character.
Other central characters include Kermit Love, the painfully-endearing, Santa-bearded puppet-maker behind many of Henson’s larger creations, including Big Bird. (Surprisingly, Kermit Love met Henson after the creation of Kermit the Frog, and was therefore not his namesake.) Love was an early mentor to Clash, taking him under his wing at an early age, and serving what Clash referred to as a grandfatherly role in his life. Ultimately, it was Love who introduced Clash to Henson, who also figures prominently into the film as a larger than life puppeteer on a pedestal. Clash grew to work closely with Henson, and continued to idolize him until Henson’s sudden and early death.
The film is one of those warm and fuzzy pieces of cinematic happiness that you can’t help but smile through. In addition to the fantastic gift of being able to see behind the scenes of a Sesame Street set, we also see numerous children interacting with Clash and Elmo directly in public appearances and Make-A-Wish style arrangements. At times it toes the line of overly gooey, but it also explores some of the more serious aspects of the performer’s life, such as his internal struggle as he traveled the world during the Tickle Me Elmo craze, meeting and playing with countless children, while ultimately being absent for pivotal moments in his own daughter’s life.
In a way, the film almost suffers from a lack of focus. While the movie begins as a straightforward biographical story about a single performer, at points in the middle it seems to shift instead to a story about Jim Henson, or his empire, or even about Elmo himself. In the end, however, Kevin Clash’s magnetic personality and touching story brings all of the elements back on track.
If the movie has a weak point, it is the narration, which is performed by Whoopi Goldberg. There were several things out of step with this element of the film, beginning with the fact that narration at all seemed largely unnecessary. I feel that documentaries with narration are fundamentally generically different from documentaries without narration, and in order to be successful, the narration must figure prominently as a key and integrated element of the movie (see March of the Penguins or any Werner Herzog documentary). Otherwise, the occasional onscreen text will work just fine for the intermittent need for additional exposition. The narration here doesn’t enter the movie until several minutes in, after the movie has already developed the recognizable naration-less aesthetic and feel, and when Goldberg’s voiceover does finally appear, it is jarring and awkward. Her narration only shows up a few times in the movie, and every time I had the same feeling of being taken out of the moment.
Additionally, Goldberg is later featured in onscreen, talking-head interviews (as well as archive footage of her on Sesame Street), talking about her feelings about Elmo. Now I’m no expert, but I feel like there should be some sort of rule against the narrator participating as a player in the story. Finally, a few of her voiceover lines were horribly written attempts at humor (another rule: narrator’s aren’t supposed to be funny).
But I am more than willing to overlook the narrative shortcomings for the rest of this movie. The story was so charming that I was also utterly able to overlook my grudge against Elmo (although I still maintain, if you are teaching children to speak, you should speak correctly). As a person who always relishes in being able to look behind the curtain, the most enjoyable parts of the movie for me were the production scenes, when we were able to see all of the unseen people behind our beloved characters. (If you are a documentarian looking for a project, I would love to see an entire feature length movie of nothing but the making of a Jim Henson production. If this already exists, PLEASE let me know in the comments!) The film is certainly geared much more toward the viewer with some serious Muppet/Sesame Street nostalgia (guilty!), though I think even the Henson newbie will find something to love here.